By Bob Nieman | Apr 15, 2009
For too many self-service laundry owners, the fact that they don’t do any advertising or promotion whatsoever is viewed by them as almost a badge of honor.
They’re saving their hard-earned money. They’re running their businesses more efficiently than those other guys down the street with the fancy, expensive newspaper ad every week.
And, hey, their loyal customers still come to them on a regular basis anyway.
“There is a misconception that laundromats are the only business in the world that does not require marketing and advertising,” laughed Bob Eisenberg of Wholesale Commercial Laundry Equipment NE in Blue Bell, Pa.
It’s a misconception that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The actual fact of the matter is that with every self-service laundry’s client base changing every year – people moving, people dying, people purchasing their own washers and dryers – you simply can’t afford to do nothing for very long and remain in business.
“You always have new people coming in that may or may not find your laundry the first time around,” Eisenberg said. “Unless you can grab their attention, you’re going to lose business after a while. It’s the law of diminishing returns. If you’re not moving forward, you’re being left behind. Eventually, not advertising or promoting will catch up to you.”
Yes, a certain percentage of customers will patronize your laundromat no matter what – they need the services you provide and they will seek you out.
However, with 15 percent to 25 percent of our customer base owning their own washers and dryers and anywhere from 15 percent to 20 percent of the population moving every year, you need to promote your store just like any other business.
“When we opened our first stores, we did a lot of advertising,” said Gary Gray, Fun Wash, Inc., Little Rock, Ark. “We really pushed it hard for two years. Then we decided not to do any advertising for about 18 months, and business really declined. That sold me on advertising very early on.”
“It amazes me that a customer will spend an enormous amount of money building a store,” said Eisenberg, who also owns Sunbright Laundromat, which is based in a suburb of Philadelphia. “They’ll make me take the equipment apart nut by nut and bolt by bolt, just to prove it’s high quality. We’ll spend all kinds of time on the minute details of building the laundromat. But then they open the store and don’t advertise.”
The first thing you have to do is create a budget, which should fall somewhere between 2 percent and 5 percent of your gross sales.
“When I open a new store, I put down a minimum of $10,000 that I’m going to plunk down on advertising over a two- to three-month period,” said Doug Baron, who owns two Speed Wash laundries in southern California. “I’ll spread that $10,000 over coupons, direct mail, door hangers and PennySaver-type ads. Then I’ll wait and see what my activity is. Did that get me up close to my target pro forma numbers? Do I need to do more of it?”
The most important thing when spending that 2 percent to 5 percent is consistency and frequency. Along those lines, perhaps hire a professional graphic designer to create a logo and a look that's consistent. When people see your ad, they should know it's your ad before they even read it.
“You’ve got to be careful not to overspend,” Gray warned. “Decide what you’re going to spend at the beginning of the year and figure out how many dollars you’re going to spend for each advertising vehicle. Then work in the details later.
“We’ve always been under 2 percent of our gross sales. I start off with 2 percent and work backward.”
“At the beginning of the year, you should sit down and say, ‘OK, I have $8,000. How am I going to spend that?’” Eisenberg noted. “If you spend it on just one big thing a year, that’s a waste. I’d rather see you do eight smaller things.
“Create an identifiable logo so that your customers can quickly spot your ads,” he continued. “You can spot a Macy’s ad in the newspaper before you see the name Macy’s. Do the same thing and create a brand. The consistency is what gets you noticed. People have to see things repetitively before it actually sinks in.”
“Even if you have just one laundry, creating a brand separates you from the masses,” Baron agreed. “My Speed Wash stores all have a racing theme and a common logo that is carried out in each of them, as well as on my Web site and in my Yellow Pages advertising.”
“Advertising validates the customer’s decision to come to you,” Eisenberg explained. “For example, why buy Advil when you can buy the generic brand for half the price? I’m one of those people who buy Advil because I feel comforted by the fact that their manufacturer is a big company and they advertise. And I pay more for that comfort. When people see your store’s advertising, it validates their decision to come to your laundry.”
The following are a few proven methods for raising your customers’ – and potential customers’ – comfort level with your laundry business.
One of the most common and effective forms of advertising for self-service laundries is direct mail. Localized, narrow vehicles typically enjoy great success in this industry.
Gray prefers using bulk-mailing services, like Val-Pak or AdVo, to get his store’s message to the public. Gray, who operates 16 stores in his market, estimated that he blankets his trading area with about 15,000 coupons – at approximately three cents per coupon.
“Our plan this year is to devote about $6,000 to mailing direct mail coupons,” he said. “The emphasis will be on our wash-dry-fold service. For the third year in a row, we have seen a decline in our total wash-dry-fold revenue. We haven’t really pushed it for a number of years.”
“When customers redeem their coupons, I like the attendants to put down the zip code on each one so that I can get a feel for where my customer base is coming from,” Eisenberg noted.
For more targeted direct mail campaigns, some laundry owners utilize their local chambers of commerce. They’ll list the apartment buildings they want to focus on, and the chamber will provide the mailing list.
Jim Risko of Lincoln Laundromat & Drycleaning in Lincoln, R.I., has developed his own mailing list of customers; however, he also utilizes a program called Welcome Neighbor USA, which targets new residents in a particular area.
“For $50, we get a list of people who bought new homes in the area,” Risko said. “And for an extra $5 we get a set of mailing labels, which we use with our direct mail pieces.”
Most communities have at least one daily or weekly newspaper, and some areas even publish a local magazine. In addition, nearly every town has a community “shopper,” a regularly produced publication filled with ads and coupons.
An advertising representative from each publication can tell you the rates available for one-time, as well as multiple, insertions. Prices are determined by the size of the advertisement you choose. Typically, the more often you advertise, the less expensive each insertion will cost.
In addition to getting the prices for the ad placement, find out how much the publication will charge you for the design, layout and typesetting of your ad. Many newspapers will perform this service free-of-charge, as a courtesy. But many won’t.
“I advertise regularly in our local newspaper,” said David Leighton, who owns Express Laundry in Middletown, Ohio. “It comes out twice a week, and sometimes when they’re low on advertisers, they’ll run a special that’s in full color – a quarter-page ad for dirt cheap money. When I do these quarter-page advertisements, I literally see an instant increase in volume that day and the next. Bottom line, that’s why I do it. When you see results like that immediately, it’s self-rewarding.”
When planning your print ad, avoid the temptation to cram as much information as possible into your allotted space. Try to keep your ad crisp and uncluttered. A few “musts” include: your store’s name, your store’s address, a local landmark to help customers find you, and an “attention-getter” – words like “free” and “limited time offer” work well. (Of course, much of this design information can be used for your direct mail pieces as well.)
Also, when offering coupons, make them worthwhile. What’s more, place time limitations on your coupon offers. You want your offer to last long enough to give people a chance to take advantage of it, but you don’t want your offer to last indefinitely, thus killing any sense of urgency to respond.
“My coupons are through a local magazine,” said Doug Coup of Oh So Clean in Howell, Mich. “It’s all ads and it’s newsprint, nothing glossy. It only costs me $85 to do a quarter page ad that runs for a month. And I probably get 100 coupons back off of that ad.”
Coup added that he also enjoys a strong response to his coupons in another local, shopper-type publication that is a bit more upscale. This full-color magazine charges $150 for a quarter page.
“I also run a banner ad on the bottom of the front page of the local newspaper two times a month,” Coup said. “It just tells who we are, where we are and what we do.”
Probably the most important form of advertising other than word of mouth is your outdoor sign. It's the most cost effective and most important.
“One thing people forget is the street sign outside their building, not the one on the front of their building,” Gray added. “It's some of the cheapest advertising you can do.”
Gray said that a sign with a reader panel is worth the investment, adding that Fun Wash has gotten some free publicity through the local newspapers simply based on some of the things that have appeared on his signs’ reader panels.
“I bought an LED reader board that hangs in the window of my store and displays all of our specials,” Eisenberg revealed.
Awnings are another solid form of advertising signage. Yes, they’re decorative and can shield your building from hot sunlight, but they’re also a great way to get the word out about your store.
Some laundry owners even paint signage on the sides of their buildings. If you own the building, clearly you can do what you like. However, if you rent your space, you’ll need to check your lease to see if such signage is allowed.
Of course, if your self-service laundry is located in a strip center, be sure that your business’ name is on the main sign leading into the mall.
Billboards also can be effective ways to get the word out about your laundry business.
“I’ve had people telling me that they saw my billboard, which hasn’t been up for two years,” laughed Coup, who used to have four billboards spread throughout his county, at a cost of $500 per month. “It’s top-of-mind awareness.”
If your laundry is located in a large urban market, radio spots may be a bit pricey for the average owner’s budget.
“In Chicago or Philadelphia, it’s going to be difficult to be on the radio,” Eisenberg acknowledged. “However, if you’re located in a Hispanic neighborhood, perhaps you could target only the Spanish-speaking radio stations, which might make things more cost-effective.”
Gray is a huge proponent of radio advertising.
“We’re going to spend about $15,000 on radio spots this year,” he divulged. “We did a group of ads for a few weeks in the spring, and we’ll run another group of spots in September and October, right after school starts.
Gray has three separate Fun Wash radio ads – one stresses the stores’ large-capacity equipment, another focuses on the wash-dry-fold service and the third ad simply tells listeners where the Fun Wash laundries are located.
“Over the years, we’ve used different copy,” Gray explained. “The radio stations typically have a department that will create the spot for you, if you tell them what you want. They’ll come back at you with written copy. We’ll tweak it, and then they’ll produce it.
“A lot of times, we’ll use the same radio spots for two or three years.”
During his stores’ cash drawings and other giveaway events, Gray will require his customers write their favorite radio stations on the entry forms in order for them to be eligible to win. This way, he can accurately choose the most effective stations on which to place his advertisements.
For many laundry operators, especially those servicing larger, urban markets, television advertising can be cost prohibitive because of the large coverage areas. In such cases, the advertiser ends up paying for coverage that's not viable.
“If you have 12 stores in one market, there is no question that television is important,” Eisenberg said. “But I think you have to have a chain to start advertising on television.”
Gray guessed that he will spend about $10,000 on cable TV ads this year. In the spring, he placed his stores’ ads in conjunction with NASCAR events. For the fall, he predicted that his television commercials would run on a cable outlet that exclusively runs classic television reruns.
Coup also has experienced success with cable television advertising.
“They were going to charge me $1,000 to make a commercial,” he explained. “They said it would be another $200 or $300 to make a second commercial. Then I asked about a third. And I ended up making three for $1,200 in about two-thirds of a day.”
One 30-second commercial talks about the large number of machines at Oh So Clean, with Coup (who stars in all three spots) being pushed around in a laundry cart. A second spot features the store’s owner sitting on the floor with a plate of food, stating that his laundry is so clean that one can eat off the floor. And the last commercial touts Coup’s comforter cleaning service.
“The people in my market know me, and now they’re going to know me even better,” Coup said.
As for choosing which channels to air his spots, Coup went with what he knew best.
“My other business is lawn maintenance, landscaping and snowplowing, which is weather-related,” he said. “The first thing I turn on every morning is the Weather Channel, so I assume a lot of my customers are doing the same thing. So I said put me on between 6 and 10 a.m.”
As it turned out, the Weather Channel was the cheapest one out there, at only $10 per spot.
“And if you are a current advertiser and they need to fill spot on different stations, they’ll throw your ad on there for free just to fill the spot,” Coup explained. “I have people telling me they’ve seen me on MTV and The Cartoon Network, and I’m not even paying to be on there.”
Cash Register Receipts
Mark Grishaber of U.R. Washinstuff in Menasha, Wis., has done well by placing coupons on the backs of cash register receipts at the local supermarket.
“It’s $330 for up to three months,” Grishaber explained. “It’s probably a lot of the same people using them over and over, but at least I know that my regular customers aren’t going somewhere else to do their laundry.”
Grishaber added that, if you purchase more than one coupon on a receipt, you receive the second for half-price. He has been taking advantage of this offer to promote this store’s adjacent car wash with that second coupon.
The Yellow Pages are still a must.
“I wasn’t sold on the Yellow Pages, but that ad has created a great deal of profit for me,” Leighton said. “No one in my community does anything other than perhaps a one-line listing. I’ve got a two- by three-inch, color ad with my name, phone number, what we do, everything.
“And the reason I think it’s doing some good is because we get a lot of phone calls. If I don’t have that ad, I’m not going to get those calls.”
Baron admitted that he didn’t launch his stores with strong Yellow Pages advertising.
“It took me two years to wake up,” he said. “A strong Yellow Pages presence is important. It’s expensive. Many laundry owners don’t want to spend $25 or $50 a month on a Yellow Pages ad. Well, if it brings in $300 or $400 a month in additional business, why wouldn’t you do that? The Yellow Pages is something I really wish somebody would have hit me over the head harder about – a lot earlier.”
It seems that every business today feels it must have a presence on the Internet to be considered viable. However, some laundry owners warn those considering this option to be sure their potential customers are indeed surfing the Web on a regular basis.
A Web site may not pay off unless you're near a college or some other specific target group.
If you chose to put your business out into cyberspace, be sure to include a printable coupon for a free wash or a free box of soap. That’s a great way to see how effective your site actually is. Not to mention, it’s a perfect way to capture crucial mailing list information.
You can pay someone to create your Web site for you, or you can simply buy one of the several computer programs available today that will enable you to build your business site on your own.
“Most people are online today,” Eisenberg said. “We’ve built a small Web site for Sunbrite, just a basic page. We’ve had some people come in and tell us they’ve seen the site. You can set up a very basic Web site for a small amount of money these days, and it will draw some business for sure.”
“I hadn’t done anything with the Internet until recently,” Baron said. “But it seems like, right away, people are find us on the Web. My initial feeling is that I wish I would have done it sooner.”
Gray – who is currently focusing the majority of his ad budget on radio spots, TV ads and direct mail pieces – has tried a number of alternative strategies through the years to tout his laundry chain. Here are some of the options he would recommend:
• College newspapers. “They’re usually published once a week, and they’re usually very inexpensive.”
• Hotel guides. “The price you pay is very negotiable. In other words, don't pay the price they ask you. It’s great for advertising self-service and wash-dry-fold.”
• Park directories. “We're in some campground directories. Those are inexpensive. We've got great customers who come and see us a certain month every year.”
• Door hangers. “The most efficient thing you can do is to hang door hangers. The cost to print them isn’t much more than a flyer. You can have a little map on there to show how customers can find you, list your services, and maybe include a coupon for a free wash.
“It takes a lot of shoe leather to hang them, but it works for a small town or for a big city. Just decide what your trade area is and go hang ‘em.
“Don’t get discouraged if nobody brings them back after the first time you’ve hung them. It’s the old story: It takes a third impression for people to react. Do it again next month. That is a no-brainer.”
• Sponsorships. “If someone wants us to contribute a few hundred bucks to sponsor a softball team, I’m always happy to do it. We definitely budget for that, too. You get your name on the uniforms. Plus, people generally talk about who their sponsors are. It’s good public relations.”
• In-store promotions. “Give something away in the store every month. I’m big on giving away cash. We gave away a $100 bill for years. Then we switched to doing one or two drawings a year and giving away $500.
“But you also can give away a $25 CD player or a laundry bag with your store’s name on it. It doesn’t cost much and it creates a lot of discussion and interest. Take the winner’s picture and put in on your bulletin board in the laundry.”
What type of advertising you do to promote your self-service laundry business, as well as how much you spend to get the word out, depends on your particular marketplace and your specific budget. But whatever you do – you must do something to let people know about your store.
“Even if you just stick a banner out on the front of your building, at least you’re talking about something new that you’re doing,” Baron suggested.
You can’t merely sit back and hope that people will come to your store, especially if it’s a new store.
“If you want to be recognized as one of the better, more professional laundromats in your market, you’ve got to get your name out,” Leighton advised. “Just do it.”
How Often Is Enough?
• Approximately 16 percent to 20 percent of the population moves each year. You need to reach these new prospective customers.
• Once you create a budget, you must devise a plan so that every month or at least every two months you advertise somewhere and somehow.
• If it costs you $1 to get a customer in the door and they are dissatisfied for any reason, it will cost you at least $10 to get them back.
• Yellow Pages
• Direct Mail
• Cable Television
• Val-Pak Mailings
• Church Bulletins
• Bench Advertising
• Local Magazines
• Window Advertising
• Cash Register Tapes
• Movie Theater Advertising
• The Internet
Your Yellow Pages Ad: ‘The Ten Commandments’
Too many coin laundry owners have no idea how well their Yellow Pages ads are working – or if they’re working at all.
Barry Maher, president of Barry Maher & Associates based in Helendale, Calif., feels “most businesses could be generating far more business, if they only stopped breaking the Ten Commandments of Yellow Pages advertising.” Here are Maher’s Yellow Pages strategies, according his book, “Getting the Most from Your Yellow Pages Advertising."
Thou Shalt Not Whip It Up. Many Yellow Page ads are whipped up in the few minutes the sales rep has left after trying to sell you a bigger ad. Insist that your directory publishers develop an ad for you that justifies the cost. If they can't or won’t, have the ad produced yourself.
Honor Thy Headlines. The first piece of ad copy that readers see – the headline – has to be powerful enough to drag them away from all those competing ads. Never use your company name as your headline unless it really is that powerful – unless it really is the most important selling copy in the ad.
Honor Thy Illustration. Nothing can turn a mediocre Yellow Pages ad into a great one faster than the right illustration. If your picture isn't worth a thousand words, find one that is.
Remember All Key Selling Points. You have to include all the hard, factual information potential customers need to make a decision to call or drop by: be it about image, market niche, specialties, additional services, pricing, quality, speed, hours, location, credit cards, whatever it might be.
Thou Shalt Not Overburden the Eyeballs. Your ad is competing for visibility and readability with every other ad under the heading. If it’s difficult to read, it isn't going to be read. You've got to refine your copy until you can provide all the information directory users want and need in an ad that's so uncluttered and inviting that reading it becomes automatic.
Thou Shalt Not Forget Placement. Unfortunately, all things being equal, bigger ads get a greater response. They also get the best placement, closest to the front of the heading. And placement can be even more important than size.
The good news is that all things are seldom equal. The biggest ad under the heading is not always the most effective. And a well-designed, visually appealing ad can make up for a lot of size, especially under a smaller heading where all the ads are on the same page or two. It's much more difficult, of course, to compete with ads on an earlier page. That page may never even be turned.
Always consider placement when you're deciding on ad size. Have your sales rep show you where the size you're considering would fall in this year's directory. That should give you an approximate idea of the position, relative to the competition, you'd have next year. Sometimes going up a single size and spending just a few more dollars will move you much closer to the front of the heading. Sometimes you can cut back in size without losing much at all in the way of position.
Remember, Position Over Color. Color is eye-catching. It’s also expensive. If the money you’d be spending is approximately the same, you’re better off significantly improving the size and placement of your ad than the color.
Thou Shalt Track. Perhaps the surest way to waste money is to advertise in a directory no one's using. Always make your rep prove value, especially when you're considering a directory you haven’t advertised in before. If he can't, don't put any real money there. Instead, try something small – perhaps even a simple in-column ad, or even just a listing. Track your response – survey your customers to discover how they discovered you – and next year you'll have your own proof, one way or the other.
Thou Shalt Not Squander Yellow Pages Dollars on White Pages Advertising. If your customers are looking for you alphabetically in the white pages, they will find you. You have no competition there. So why are you considering that expensive white pages ad?
Have Faith, But Get a Proof. Always insist on a proof for your display ad.
“Remember that small error one publisher made, listing a lawyer not under ‘Attorneys’ but under ‘Reptiles?’” Maher joked. “I’ll leave it to you whether or not that was simply more truth in advertising than the attorney was ready for.”